Sep 13, 2023 - News

New Orleans grapples with shrinking tree canopy amid severe weather

Photo shows live oaks in Audubon Park

Live oak trees provide shade for the walking path at Audubon Park. Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

New Orleans has lost at least 13 live oak trees in recent weeks.

Why it matters: The city is known for its majestic, Spanish moss-covered oaks. Officials also say increasing the tree canopy is part of a long-term strategy to improve stormwater management and help us become more resilient to extreme heat.

  • But, when the trees fall, they can hurt people and damage property.

Catch up quick: Safety concerns with live oak trees have been a hot topic since a tree fell in Jackson Square in July, sending a teenage tourist to the hospital.

  • He has a severe brain injury, according to attorney Morris Bart, who is representing his family in their lawsuit against the city and its contractors.

Driving the news: Most of the tree removals happened in the last week or so, after a Labor Day thunderstorm dumped more than 5 inches of rain in some parts of the city during an intense drought.

  • Three trees fell within 24 hours of the storm and were removed, according to Michael Karam, the director of Parks and Parkways. One fell on South Carrollton Avenue, hitting a woman who was then taken to a hospital, according to WDSU.
  • Two 300-year-old trees fell in City Park and had to be removed. City Park COO Chris Maitre, in a WWL interview, blamed a combination of "lightning strikes, termites, the drought and then the quick water saturation."
  • Eight live oak trees were cut down in front of Sophie B. Wright Charter School, with city representatives citing damage from termites and "unpermitted private contractor work." A large limb had fallen last month on a school bus, according to WWL.
Photo shows a live oak tree in a neighborhood
A live oak tree grows in the Garden District in August 2020. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Meanwhile, a new disease called lethal bronzing is killing palm trees in southeast Louisiana.

  • "Once a palm is infected, it can't be saved," LSU plant doctor Raghuwinder 'Raj' Singh told NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.

The big picture: New Orleans has more than 110,000 trees on public property, Karam said, adding that his department's mission is to "preserve, protect and expand" the tree canopy.

  • Hurricanes like Katrina and Ida were brutal to the tree canopy, and leaders say the unseasonably hot, dry weather in 2021, 2022 and now 2023 also took a toll.
  • Plus, vehicles are damaging trees, Karam said. He gave examples of box trucks (and Mardi Gras floats) hitting branches, people parking on the neutral ground and vehicles crashing into trees.
  • Parks and Parkways has three arborists on staff to inspect trees, Karam said, and they mainly are reactive, responding when there's a ticket filed for help.
Photo shows two men working in front of a live oak tree that fell during Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina toppled many trees, including this one in the Lower Garden District. September 2005 photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

What's next: New Orleans is trying to plant 40,000 trees by 2030. Parks and Parkways crews have planted 1,165 so far this planting season, and Karam this month said they have applied for federal money to plant more.

  • In total, at least 17,914 trees have been planted since 2017

A mixture of 26 native and adapted species are being planted, including various species of oak trees, crape myrtles and magnolias, as well as bald cypress, Mexican fan palm and swamp maple trees.

  • The reforestation plan will tie in with the Big Green Easy, the masterplan in the works from the city to improve its parks.

Go deeper: The climate gains of urban trees

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that the 1,165 trees were planted this season and 17,914 since 2017.

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